Bipartisan support for a proposal to raise the maximum fine for pirate radio to as much as $2 million emerged in the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology on Thursday. During a discussion into the proposed Preventing Illegal Radio Abuse Through Enforcement or “PIRATE” Act, which is being circulated among members, lawmakers agreed the current fines have come up short in the effort to go after pirate radio operators. “It’s high time we pay more attention to the harm being done to consumers and broadcasters alike,” Subcommittee chair Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) said.
Federal law presently allows the Federal Communications Commission to impose a maximum fine of $19,246 per day for each violation or each day up to a statutory maximum of $144,344. The proposal would boost that to as much $100,000 per day, per violation with a maximum fine allowed by law of $2 million.
The impact of pirate stations may be well known to anyone in radio, but New York State Broadcasters Association president David Donovan explained to lawmakers how unlicensed stations are putting the public at risk from their potential interference with the Emergency Alert System’s daisy-chain fabric to potentially exposing people to RF radiation from stations that have been known to run up to as much as 3,000-watts. “The bottom line is that if you live in the top floors of these buildings or use a rooftop deck you are being exposed to levels that are above government standards,” he explained. Donovan—armed with photographic evidence of towers topping homes and apartment buildings—also explained how pirates often ignore rules banning advertising for alcohol and tobacco and play unedited versions of songs that would get licensed stations in trouble for violating indecency regulations. “The fundamental purpose of the FCC is to manage spectrum and avoid interference,” Donovan said. “It has become clear that the FCC needs additional tools to combat this problem and the PIRATE Act provides those tools.”
In addition to raising pirate fines, the proposal would require the FCC to conduct at least twice-a-year enforcement sweeps in the top five radio markets—New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco and Dallas—for the purpose of “identifying, locating, and terminating such operations and seizing related equipment.” Donovan told lawmakers it doesn’t take much effort to turn up pirates in some cities. He pointed to a study conducted in 2016 in the New York metro area that counted 76 pirates during a four-day count. And Donovan said current technology allows the Enforcement Bureau to remotely monitor the airwaves and determine which area a pirate may be located in before agents even leave their office. “By using technology in a smart way we will actually reduce the burdens that are imposed by doing sweeps,” he suggested.
Pirate Advertisers Beware
In addition to squarely targeting pirates, the legislation under consideration would give the FCC the authority to issue the larger fines against any landlord or business that provides “physical goods or services” as well as financial assistance to an unlicensed station. “One of the problems that you have is that illegal operators take on the aurora of a legitimate station and as a result advertisers, including folks buying political time, have no idea that they’re buying advertising on an illegal station,” Donovan said. He suggested the FCC could create a market-by-market listing of which stations are licensed and which are known to be pirates.
Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY) backed that idea. “In some cases we have advertisers who have no idea that it’s a pirate radio station so this common sense move will would let them easily scan through and say they’re not going to send money to this guy,” he said.
The bill, drafted by Reps. Leonard Lance (R-NJ) and Paul Tonko (D-NY), would also give the Enforcement Bureau the authority to destroy any equipment seized from alleged pirates within 90 days from the date that it was taken away from an unlicensed broadcaster. Some lawmakers are also looking at adding to the proposal to give the FCC more leeway in pursuing pirate fines in court, something it must currently rely on the Justice Department to do. “This legislation comes in response to the growing number of pirate radio broadcasters in the region that are harming consumers and public safety,” Tonko said.
But Rep. Mike Doyle (D-PA) called reports of more unlicensed stations in cities like New York and Miami “anecdotal” and expressed skepticism about whether pirate fines need to be raised. He compared pirates to low-power FMs that offer some segments of the community an outlet to express themselves. “As we consider this legislation I think we need to balance the legitimate concerns of broadcast licensees with the limited opportunities for expression available in some communities,” Doyle said. “My hope is that as we consider this bill we can take an approach that addresses both groups’ needs.”
Stepped Up Enforcement
During the past year the FCC has stepped up its effort to shut pirate radio operations down and the Enforcement Bureau has started to release warning letters it sends to those accused of putting an unlicensed station on the air as a potential deterrent to others. “It has become a higher priority for the Enforcement Bureau than it had been in the recent past,” Bureau chief Rosemary Harold told Inside Radio in a recent Q&A.
During the House hearing Collins said those steps are overdue and complained former chair Tom Wheeler “did not seem interested” in tackling the issue. “I can assure you that Ajit Pai, our new FCC chair, does take this seriously and I think we’re going to see a big change,” Collins said.
Only New York and Florida have had more trouble with pirate radio than New Jersey which since 2003 has seen the FCC take 243 enforcement actions in the state. New Jersey Broadcasters Association president Paul Rotella said a drive along the I-95 corridor is likely to expose a dozen pirates in a ten-mile stretch of highway in the northern part of the state. “We are making some headway but what happens a lot with pirates is the whack-a-mole syndrome where the FCC goes out and finds a pirate and takes them off the air and another one springs up down the block,” Rotella said in an interview. “So it requires constant monitoring.”
It’s already a felony to operate an unlicensed radio station in New Jersey and the proposed legislation before Congress specifically empowers state and local governments to enact laws and ordinances that would impose additional civil or criminal penalties on pirate radio operators and their enablers. Rotella hopes other states will adopt laws similar to what New Jersey and Florida have already enacted. He believes the more risky the behavior becomes, the less likely some pirates are to take their chances. “If you had a situation where you can put them in jail or fine them heavily, you can immobilize the bad actors,” Rotella said.
Speaking before Congress on Thursday Donovan agreed. “This is big business and a $10,000 fine is absolutely nothing,” he told lawmakers. “When you look at someone who is violating the law literally for decades, this is just the cost of doing business.”